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Dress Rehearsal: Marines prep for U.S. Africa Command deployment

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On the afternoon of Sept. 19, in a stack of tan shipping containers meant to resemble a mosque, a group of grown men are using their imaginations.

About 130 Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 2012, a newly formed unit preparing to deploy in support of U.S. Africa Command, are here to complete a mission rehearsal exercise. The event serves as a kind of final exam before SPMAGTF-12 goes overseas to start conducting training partnership missions across the continent.

Today, the faux mosque is a U.S. Embassy in a fictional African nation and the two Marines, sitting on wooden foot lockers surrounded by dried up leaves and cobwebs, are wearing sleek business suits.

Capt. Philip Gaffney and Gunnery Sgt. Bill Ross, the men in charge of Security Cooperation Team Tactics-1, are grilled by Marty Klotz, the stability operations officer-in-charge of
Special Operations Training Group, Camp Lejeune, N.C. Wearing cargo shorts and a black T-shirt, he introduces himself as the U.S. Ambassador to “Amberland.”

SCTT-1 is one of four teams going through the exercise. Each will first go through a meeting with the ambassador who will have them explain their intentions in Amberland as well as what their plans are for dealing with things like traffic accidents with civilian vehicles and injured Marines. The real-life ambassadors of the nations the Marines will be operating in have the authority to pull the plug if they’re not confident in the teams, explained Klotz.

Gaffney and Ross use the alphabet soup of acronyms familiar to most Marines, but foreign to most civilians, as they answer Ambassador Klotz’s questions.

“Get out of the habit of speaking Marine-ese,” he told them later. “You have to speak English.”

Team 1 met their first role-player class the next day at a firing range. An interpretor and a foreign commander were played by French-speaking West African contractors, while Marines from available units played the Kalishnakov-toting students.

Ross greeted the class with a “good morning.” The Marines remained in character, returning a very American accented “bon jour.”

Over the next couple days the Marine teams taught the role players various classes through the interpreters, learning to simplify complicated technical terms so that little would be lost in translation.

“We want the scenarios, as much as possible, to reflect reality,” said Gaffney, SCTT-1 team leader and Philadelphia native.

The subject matter was basic, things like how to change a tire or zero a rifle, but the exercise control group threw curve balls at every turn. Students would get bored and start impromptu soccer games and random, illegal checkpoints were simulated throughout the exercise area to challenge Marines driving between training sites. Often, control group Marines would sneak away at night to harass the teams staying in off-base hotels by attempting to steal gear or take intelligence photos.

”It‘s all the stuff that we think they could actually see in country,” said Capt. Matthew Jenkins, SPMAGTF-12 current operations officer and Columbia, S.C., native, adding that many of the lessons learned training militaries in Iraq and Afghanistan were still relevant.

The MRE was the culmination of roughly four months of pre-deployment training. SPMAGTF-12 will make its way to Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, and begin sending the teams into the continent on their first missions over the coming month.

Article by Cpl. Jad Sleiman, Marine Forces Reserve